Friday, April 24, 2009

Weekend Matinee: The Nigel Kneale Tapes

I've spent my entire life obsessed with science fiction, but not in the ways some might expect. I don't sit and pore over blueprints of the various Enterprises, or spend all my time on message boards, nitpicking the ouevre of Joss Whedon. But I do spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing on the ideas that sci-fi plays with- not an uncommon condition these days.

Anyway, sci-fi is an overly broad term that incorporates space opera, hard sci-fi, sci-fi fantasy, speculative fiction (which I'd classify The X-Files as) and certainly superhero fiction, which in many ways is the apotheosis of the sci-fi aesthetic. In the late 80s, cyberpunk sci-fi (particularly the work of William Gibson) shook my worldview to its foundations and the aftershocks of that continue to this day.

Sci-fi is poorly understood, and a lot of that is the fault of the vocal, visual minority of fans who treat the medium as escapist fetish literature, and not as a medium for the exploration of concepts lying at the core of human existence. I think we're all indebted to Battlestar Galactica for changing the conversation about sci-fi in the mainstream press, back to the consensus that had developed around the genre in the 60s and 70s. Even though it's loaded with subtext and deeper meaning, the theme-park appeal of the Star Wars films set that process back. In some ways we're just recovering from the effect it and its imitators had on an entire generation.

And then there is Nigel Kneale, a sci-fi writer who is generally recognized as one of the most important British screenwriters, and perhaps one of the most important television writers ever. Kneale approached the genre the way all its best writers have, as a way to explore the frontiers of the human condition. I'd been familiar with his work since I was a kid, but it wasn't until I was able to see his original teleplays online that I really got it.

We may well be in a fragile pocket of time, and this understanding of sci-fi as real, functional mythology could probably get pretty stupid once the eternally-ravenous media beasties swoop in and start spewing their know-it-all arrogance all over the topic. But before that happens, it's important to investigate information like this excellent documentary on Kneale. I know that regular readers of this blog will eat it up, recognizing many of the same issues that get knocked around in the Synchrosphere being broadcast into the living rooms of hardscrabble, post-war Britain.

One of those issues is Intervention Theory or AAT or whatever you want to call it. Kneale joins Chris Carter, Jack Kirby, George Lucas and Stanley Kubrick in their unapologetic exploration of this forbidden topic, which really is one of the last taboos of our allegedly-enlightened times. What makes this disreputable theory so attractive to these brilliant, accomplished men? Maybe when you spend so much time exploring the human condition you become acutely aware of the improbability of it all, as well as the basic, immutable reality of human maladaptivity to its supposed native environment....

Loren Coleman is also a major Kneale fan- read his eulogy for the writer here.


  1. Great post Chris & thanks for sharing your line of exploration.

    "Maybe when you spend so much time exploring the human condition you become acutely aware of the improbability of it all, as well as the basic, immutable reality of human maladaptivity to its supposed native environment...."Brilliantly put.

  2. Excellent post, Chris!

    We spend so much time on surface materials that ultimately we miss the real meaning behind these sci-fi themes. Like you said, we need expand our exploration into these esoteric traditions inorder to further our discernment of it all.

    I have been really examining the descent of the human condition and realise that there must be a connection with the Interventionist Theory. How else do we explain the constant and seemingly infinite madness around us?

  3. I hope you guys enjoy it- it's amazing how contemporary Kneale's stories seem. The doc glosses over it but apparently he left the BBC because of pressure from the Thatcher government over his last Quatermass script.

  4. Hiya Mr. Knowles, I still have to read this post, but I wanted to point out the latest crop circle:

    very interesting.

  5. I like to think that sci-fi is a broad enough church that it can accommodate people looking for different things, whether that is a lifestyle, a religion, an excuse to dress up or a medium to ask (and answer?) some big questions (as well as more human scale ones, of course).

    In fact it could be that "vocal, visual minority of fans who treat the medium as escapist fetish literature" help run interference for the rest of us, making the area just unacceptable enough to keep the "eternally-ravenous media beasties" at bay.

    It is a delicate balancing act but we do seem to be hitting a good balance where there is an appreciation of the kind of stories that can be told and a deep market penetration that exposes people to these ideas. It is still kept at arms length and most of the big box office films are noise and dumb but it does leave the door open for others to sneak through, as if they were a beachhead for a new Golden Age. They have heavily mined the most accessible properties so it might mean more off-the-wall ideas get a look in. The lower cost of computer processing power also means people can bring wilder visions to the screen (although JMS did wonders with relatively little back in the day and the scope and scale of Babylon 5 would be difficult to pull off even today!!). I am also interested to see that some of the more maverick comics creators could be getting their shot - Grant Morrison is getting a lot of interest at the moment (and I'm sure some of the others I'd like to see films from are getting some interesting offers - it surely can't be long until Warren Ellis gets something out there and I suspect there will be a rush to mine his back catalogue).

    So it could be interesting times ahead.

  6. have you seen Wall-E yet? Disney/Pixar did aat/intervention to a 't.' And did it for the kids, too. It won an Oscar, which says a lot. It has very little dialogue at all, but it says a lot with out saying it. I was very entertained, and even brought to tears.

  7. Interventionist theory makes perfect sense, when you think about it. But for our so called 'fall from grace' life would otherwise be quite dandy.

    A certain serpentine meddling in the affairs of humans has caused all sorts of chaos - an intricate link with nature suddenly severed.

    According to my understanding of the Gnostic teachings, they (other beings) meddled in order to hold us back, due to their envying our ability to use our intent (to create ones own reality I presume). Unlike some, I don't believe reality creation (or control) is the sole dominion of psychopaths.

    I suggest we use our intent to allow the Archons/ET's to have what they desire - ie. the divine creative spark that makes us human. With that comes a conscience and their resulting guilt will leave them scrambling to help, rather than hinder us (rather like Angel when he was given a soul).

    The answer to our crisis is not to try and rise up against our oppressors, rather merely pray for them. We are all subject to the laws of evolution and I think that soon we shall be the ones calling the shots...

    Thanks for the post, Chris (as too the forum for allowing our own input). It got me thinking enough to write the above.


  8. Looking over David's comment, I feel compelled to mention Richard Strauss yet again. Not Zarathustra or Salome as usual, but one of his final operas, Die Liebe der Danae. As you can see from the plot, the almighty Jupiter ends up humbled by Danae's choice to live in poverty with a disempowered Midas.

    I'm not sure this makes sense, but the idea that "gods" might actually be jealous of humanity (and its potential) is a compelling idea, relevant to the other themes discussed on this blog. It certainly ties in with the idea of the Uebermensch outlined in Zarathustra (the life-affirming definition, not the cartoonish perversion the Nazis used to claim racial superiority).


  9. Very cool comments, guys- lots of juicy infoey goodness to chew on. Stay healthy...